Why you should care
Because literary lady loving can be wild and wacky.
There’s no shortage of great girl-on-girl erotic lit. But sometimes what our hearts or loins desire is a literary lady to take us by the hand and show us just how funny, beautiful and intense lesbian loving can be.
“Every time a woman writes about love between women … the ground shifts,” says E.J. Levy, whose 1995 anthology, Tasting Life Twice: Literary Lesbian Fiction by New American Writers, received a Lambda Literary Award. “Lesbian writers … help us see human, cultural and political possibilities … without orbiting around the sun of dick.” Which is especially urgent now, she adds, “when we’re seeing the consequences of toxic, white, het[erosexual], male supremacy in the hallucination that is Trump.”
Whether you want revolution or just a little turn-on, here are some of the best lesbian novels written in the English language — great stuff that uses wacky words and worlds to get specific about lady loving.
Ladies Almanack (1928), by Djuna Barnes
Complete with the author’s own illustrations (from woodcuts!), this little novel presents a goofy and brilliant all-lesbian cast. They speak in dirty antiquated English and engage in everything from heartfelt odes to their lovers to slapstick physical comedy and tongue-in-cheek sociopolitical tirades. What makes it even better is that the characters are based on actual participants in a lesbian salon in 1920s Paris.
The newest novel on this list was named a best book of the year by nearly a dozen major outlets.
The Gilda Stories (1991), by Jewelle Gomez
In this novel, a Black lesbian vampire travels through hundreds of years and several cities. The power — or weakness — of infinite life adds an especially existential edge to the challenges of occupying her body in various times and places. Jewelle Gomez’s direct language makes it easy to slip into her very fantastic story, while allowing the love and violence she describes to shine through vividly.
Here Comes the Sun (2016), by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Describing the tragic legacy of colonialism in Jamaica, the newest novel on this list was named a best book of the year by nearly a dozen major outlets. The narrator is a lesbian who sleeps with men for money and throws other women under the bus — all in hopes of living in peace with her lover and sending her little sister to school. Nicole Dennis-Benn illustrates her characters through razor-sharp and action-filled prose.
Orlando: A Biography (1928), by Virginia Woolf
Orlando may be the most academia-acclaimed book on this list, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. We meet Orlando as a man in the Elizabethan era and then watch him miraculously live for hundreds of years, into Virginia Woolf’s own time, after undergoing a mysterious sex change. Publication date isn’t the only thing this novel has in common with Barnes’ — it too has a juicy, real-life backstory. The protagonist was inspired by Vita Sackville-West, a fellow novelist and Woolf’s lover. The prose, being Woolf’s, is perfect.
Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name (1982), by Audre Lorde
This one might not exactly be a novel — Audre Lorde called it a “biomythology,” which, she said, “weaves autobiography, cultural history and myth.” We learn much about the women who shaped Lorde’s life and about her own experiences as a Black lesbian, and her multiple lesbian relationships are central. The prose is experimental and gorgeous.
Noting that the word “lesbian” is derived from the poet Sappho of Lesbos, Jodie Medd, editor of The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature and author of Lesbian Scandal and the Culture of Modernism, says that “‘lesbian’ and ‘literature’ are intimately intertwined throughout Western literature.” Indeed, the above list is only a (very subjective and very limited) tip of the massive iceberg of lesbian literary tradition.